Tag Archives: Israeli settlements

Bulldozing homes and the prospects for peace

“Oh my God! What is this for?!” We are driving through the West Bank when Ghassan, our Palestinian colleague, sees a yellow digger on the back of a lorry and becomes concerned. It is parked next to an Israeli army watchtower, which are dotted all over the occupied Palestinian territory and are ugly reminders of the military occupation, now into its 52nd year. Army jeeps approach the lorry and it forms a convoy which moves off.

Ghassan is upset because this is the kind of equipment used by the Israeli authorities to demolish the homes of some Palestinians.

Bulldozer

Diggers like this one we saw can be part of the equipment used by the Israeli authorities for demolitions of Palestinian homes and other property

I am back in Palestine and Israel, 5 years after my stint working with EAPPI as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron. This time I have donned my EAPPI jacked for just a week, and am providing protective presence cover in Yanoun in the West Bank, one of the smallest surviving Palestinian villages.  Yanoun is under threat because the Israeli settlements (illegal under international law) and outposts (illegal under both international and Israeli law) on surrounding hilltops want to take the village’s land, and have used violence to try to bring this about.

On this occasion, we are on our way to Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village east of Jerusalem in an area known as E1. This Bedouin community has lived in this area since the 1950’s yet Khan al-Ahmar is due to be destroyed by the Israeli authorities in the next few days. The nearby Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim wishes to expand. And so the Israeli Government is set to bulldoze the homes of 173 Bedouin people, including 92 children. This includes a school funded by the international community, which educates over 150 children.

KAA school

Some of the girls who live in Khan al-Ahmar showing me round their school. The school is known as the ‘Tyre School’ because it was built of tyres and sand in a bid to comply with Israeli regulations forbidding the use of concrete. It is funded by the international community.

Abu Khamis is the leader of the Khan al-Ahmar community. His anxiety is palpable – he tells us, “There is not much time. I hope we can stay here.”

Despite the enormous stress that the community is under, we are welcomed with typical warm Palestinian hospitality. Men and children are sitting on cushions in a shady area. Mattresses and blankets are piled up for the other international visitors who sometimes sleep in the community to help the residents feel safer through their protective presence. We are given coffee, pitta bread, falafel and grape juice. Later, we sit with the women, who give us orange juice and offer tea and yet more food. The international support matters to people here – a resident called Ibrahim tells me, “We know we are not alone and this makes us feel strong.” But there is frustration that multiple statements of support for Khan al-Ahmar from European and other governments have had no impact on the Israeli Government’s plans for demolition.

Abu Khamis

Abu Khamis, leader of the Khan al-Ahmar community, “There is not much time. I hope we can stay here.”

For most of us, it is virtually impossible to imagine the government sending bulldozers to destroy our home. But sadly, house demolitions are not a rare phenomenon for Palestinians living in Area C in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. According to the UN, between 1988-2016, 3344 Palestinian homes or other structures were demolished, with a further 12,741 having a demolition order against them.

In Khan al-Ahmar, the residents have been fighting the threatened destruction of their community for years, including in the Israeli courts. The Israeli authorities say that the village structures were erected without the necessary permits, despite the fact that they are almost impossible to attain – according to Israeli human rights organisation Bt’Selem, almost 99% are not approved. Now we are likely in the final days before the bulldozers come. The demolition order is ready. A few days ago, the Israeli authorities installed military gates at the community entrance and flattened the road to give the bulldozers easier access.

Gates

Military gates including this one have now been installed by the Israeli authories at the entrance to Khan al-Ahmar to make the demolition easier

The only delay is whilst there are discussions about where the residents may be relocated to. Current propositions from the Israeli authorities include the vicinity of a rubbish dump, and of sewage pipes from Israeli settlements. Aside from whether these would be fit for human habitation, they do not include the space needed for the community’s sheep to graze. Keeping animals is an essential part of the Bedouin way of life, and of earning a living.

Donkey

A boy on his donkey in Khal al-Ahmar

People in the village are exhausted and frightened. Hussein, who lives here, told me, “We are tired of being scared that bulldozers will come… We will not leave by choice, only if they force us.”

In response to what is happening in Khan al-Ahmar, British MPs like Wes Streeting have called for targeted economic sanctions on Israeli settlements – on 4 July 2018 in the House of Commons he said, “if Israel is going to demolish Palestinian villages on the grounds that they are illegal settlements, is it not time for this country and our European partners to take targeted economic sanctions against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank?” Many believe that part of the problem is the international community’s failure to back up their concerned press releases over these kinds of Israeli Government abuses of Palestinian human rights with actual consequences. In July, the Irish senate voted in favour of a bill banning the importation of products from Israeli settlements. And on 7 August 2018, some British Conservative and Labour MPs jointly wrote to British Prime Minister Theresa May about Khan al-Ahmar, stating, “It is clear from the actions of the Israeli Government that the time has passed when releasing British Government statements of concern will have any impact on proceedings. We believe that the planned destruction of Khan al-Ahmar represents a test by the Israeli Government as to the international community’s willingness to take meaningful action in response. Until there is a significant price to be paid, it seems clear that such abhorrent acts will proceed.” They asked her to urgently raise the situation of Khan al-Ahmar with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The forcible transfer of a population in this situation is contrary to International Humanitarian Law, and is recognised by the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity. Bt’Selem says, “This constitutes a war crime for which all those involved bear personal liability.”

Woman in KAA

A Bedouin woman in Khan al-Ahmar looks out towards the illegal Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim on the hilltop in the distance, which is set to expand if her village is destroyed

If the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar goes ahead then it is likely that other nearby Bedouin villages with demolition orders against them will be next. The location of the village in the E1 area is highly significant – Israeli settlement expansion in its place could pave the way for the West Bank to be split in two. This would destroy the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state and, most likely with it, any remaining hopes of a two state solution to the long and bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Abu Khamis says, “People from Palestine are losing belief in peace.” It’s not hard to see why.

Abu Nimr, another visitor to the village who is Palestinian tells me, “The Bedouin will refuse to leave. But in the end, we know they [the Israeli army] may use force.” This is a place whose days seem to be numbered; and whose people do not know their fate.

If they destroy Khan al-Ahmar then, as well as destroying innocent people’s homes, the Israeli Government will be bulldozing the prospects for peace.

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In Hebron, you don’t ask “why?”

National Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article by me about Hebron on 11 December 2013. It is online at http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.562723. Here is the text of the article:

In Hebron, you don’t ask ‘why?’

Three months of living in Hebron taught me what goes on there makes no sense, either for Israel’s security or for the Palestinians who live there.

In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.

I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history – my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.

After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.

As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city – at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”

I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.

I kept asking: Why?

British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.

On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.

Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.

If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there – especially to the young people – makes Israel less secure.

One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say ‘pebbles’ advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians – this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.

I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.

While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.

Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.

Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?

I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.

I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”

Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at http://www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward

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Israel’s settlements devastate peace

National Scottish newspaper The Scotsman published an article by me about Hebron on 15 October 2013.  It is online at http://www.scotsman.com/news/melanie-ward-israel-s-settlements-devastate-peace-1-3141288.  Here is the text of the article:

 

Israel’s settlement’s devastate peace

Israel’s expansion into Palestinian land must stop in order for an end to the conflict to stand a chance, writes Melanie Ward

In recent weeks, I have learnt to tell the difference between the sounds that various weapons make when fired by the Israeli army: tear gas; sound bombs and plastic-coated steel bullets. Observing violent clashes, I have seen injured Palestinians – more than 200 were hurt in all – carried to ambulances, sirens blaring. I have offered my sympathy to young Israeli soldiers grieving for the loss of their friend and comrade who was shot and killed on duty. I have hugged a Palestinian mother weeping for her sons, held apparently indefinitely in Israeli prisons. I have heard the fear of an Israeli father whose daughter will soon be conscripted into the army. Both Israelis and Palestinians have told me of their desperation for peace, for an end to the conflict that blights the Holy Land and the lives of so many here.

I am in Hebron in the occupied Palestinian territory, halfway through a three month stint as a human rights observer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an initiative of the World Council of Churches. Life back home feels worlds away.

Foreign secretary William Hague says the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away and on its last chance. This is largely due to the rate of Israel’s settlement construction and expansion on Palestinian land. It is a major obstacle to peace, being so rapid that having enough land left on which to create a viable Palestinian state will soon be impossible.

I have visited Israel-Palestine several times before, twice with organisations which focus on Israeli perspectives. My regular job is with international poverty charity ActionAid, so I have seen suffering before. But nothing can prepare you for what it is like to actually live here for a while.

My role is to monitor and report on human rights abuses and to support vulnerable communities who suffer under the Israeli military occupation. It is also to support those working for peace. Alongside dozens of Palestinians, I have met Israelis of all ages working for change. Some are young men – former Israeli soldiers like Yehuda, Avner and Shay, who want people to know the truth of what is done by their army in places such as Hebron. Others are retired Israeli women like Hanna, Tzipi and Ya’el who help Palestinians at military checkpoints.

It is these checkpoints which divide Hebron.

Hebron is literally a city of two halves. One side is a bustling Palestinian city – designated as H1 under the Oslo Accords. Then, as you step into a portacabin that blocks a street in the city centre, you find that it is actually military checkpoint 56. It’s like stepping through some kind of dystopian mirror. Exiting the checkpoint and still in Hebron, but, designated here as H2 and entirely controlled by Israel, are young Israeli soldiers with large guns. H2 is known as “the ghost town” due to its eerie, deserted feel.

In H2, Palestinians are forbidden to drive or walk on most of the main street, which used to be the heart of commercial Hebron. Some have permits to get to their own homes, some have had their front doors welded shut by soldiers. Many Palestinians have left altogether. More than 1,000 homes stand abandoned and more than 1,800 businesses have closed. But there is one group who can walk, drive and exercise their freedom – the 500-700 Israeli settlers. Their presence is illegal under international law but they are protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The settlers are religiously motivated, believing that they are doing God’s work in attempting to rid Hebron of Palestinians and make it fully Jewish. They don’t shirk from using violence and harassment – I have witnessed both – and they act with almost total impunity.

The violent clashes that erupted during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot escalated when the Israeli army entered Palestinian H1 – violating international agreements – and began closing shops and roads, and demanding people leave the area. The reason became clear: 200 Israeli settlers wanted to pray at an old tomb located here.

Tensions grew and by the end of the day the centre of Hebron resembled a war zone. Later that day, an Israeli soldier was shot dead in another part of the city.

If Scotland feels far away, the US-led talks about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations feel even further.

Key to the settlers achieving their aim is their creation of “facts on the ground”. They already occupy four settlements in Hebron city centre and two on the outskirts. Now they plan to create two new ones.

The day the soldier was shot here, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the settlers should be facilitated to take one of them, located next to a Palestinian girls’ school.

The second is a complex called the Al Rajabi building, large enough to house 40 families. Settlers call it Beit HaShalom (the House of Peace). The highly strategic location would help them expand and link existing settlements, with serious implications for the nearby Palestinians. Settlers occupied this building in 2007-8, during which time the UN documented their violence, including arson and shooting two Palestinian men.

Many here say it beggars belief for the Israeli government to encourage the creation of new settlements by violent settlers in a most bitterly contested part of the West Bank, at the same time as the attempt to restart peace negotiations.

The Israeli Supreme Court is currently considering the cases but the Israeli government will have the final say. William Hague, John Kerry and their colleagues must be uncompromising: new settlements in Hebron are entirely unacceptable.

I recently met Ismail, a 22-year-old Palestinian who has just been released from five months in an Israeli prison for writing graffiti on a refugee camp wall where he lives.

Yet he is incredibly positive and hopeful about the future. He uses social media to converse with young Israelis about their shared desire for peace.

He told me: “I think maybe one day we will be neighbours and they will say to me ‘Shalom, come in for a cup of tea.’ I think we will have peace one day.”

New settlements in Hebron devastate the dream of peace shared by Ismail and his Israeli friends. They must be stopped.


Melanie Ward is a graduate of Stirling University and a former president of NUS Scotland.

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